John McGahern: Commentary

Bruce Cook
Maurice Harmon
Jürgen Kamm
James Simmon
Joe Jackson
Denis Sampson
Terence Brown
Sean Dunne
Eileen Battersby
Eamon Grennan
Gerry Smyth
Belinda McKeon
Robert McCrum
Nicholas Wroe
Shirley Kelly
Desmond Traynor
Robert MacFarlane
Hermione Lee
Seamus Deane
Declan Kiberd
Brian Moore
Robert Greacen
Andrew Motion
Richard Pine
John Kenny
Joseph O’Connor
Eamon Maher

Patrick Crotty: ‘McGahern has never been in more than a very secondary sense a political writer [...] His primary thematic interest is metaphysical.’ (‘“All Toppers”: Children in the Fiction of John McGahern’, in Irish University Review, Vol. 35, No. 1, 2005, p.42.)

  • Bruce Stewart, “McGahern’s Literary Style in That They May Face the Rising Sun”: Reading Notes by Bruce Stewart - as attached.

See also reference to McGahern in Edward Hirsch’s classic essay on the place of the peasant in Irish literature and culture - ‘The Imaginary Irish Peasant’ (PMLA 1991) - as infra.

Bruce Cook, ‘The Irish: Pugnacious, Powerless, and Bored’, in National Observer (1 March 1975), p.102/55: ‘Exile - it’s a familiar theme in Irish writing. That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s not one rich in material for the writer who has lived it. John McGahern makes it new in The Leavetaking, the third novel by this most talented of Ireland’s younger writers (he’ll be 40 this year). That’s most talented, not most accomplished. For The Leavetaking, just like McGahern’s last — a chilling little novel, published in 1966, titled The Dark - is marred by technical errors. / Still, McGahern is a writer of great, feeling and emotional strength. His new book, as the title implies, is a tale of departure, of shutting the door on one’s native land. In fact, it is presented within the frame of a single day, Patrick Flanagan’s last as a teacher in Dublin; tomorrow he will leave for England. In this last day he reviews his life and the circumstances that have driven him to leave.’ [Cont.]

Bruce Cook (‘The Irish: Pugnacious, Powerless, and Bored’, in National Observer, 1975) - cont.: ‘He reviews a good deal too much. There is something compulsive about the way McGahern tells and retells the story of his mother’s death and his own grim childhood. This was the stuff of his first two novels; it even found its way into a number of the stories in Nightlines, a collection published back in 1971. Now we suffer once again with the schoolteacher mother through her cancer. We must again endure the meanness of the father, who is a policeman. The trouble is, this book tells little about their child, Patrick - simply that he was there and saw it all. He couldn’t, however, have seen and heard all he tells here: There is a fundamental violation of point-of-view in the novel, which at one point causes confusion on the identity of the “I” who is addressing the reader. A fault, surely.’ [For full-text version, go to RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews, via index, or direct.)

Maurice Harmon, ‘Generations Apart: 1925-1975’, in Patrick Rafroidi & Harmon, eds., The Irish Novel in Our Time [Cahiers irlandaises, 4-5] (l’Université de Lille 1976), pp.49-65; ‘The Leavetaking is a sensitive and perceptive analysis of a man’s relationship with his mother, then with a mother substitute and finally with a more distinctly realised woman and their redemptive relationship.’ (p.59).

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Jürgen Kamm, ‘John McGahern’ in Contemporary Irish Novelists, ed., Rüdiger Imhof [Studies in English and Comparative Literature, gen. eds. Michael Kenneally & Wolfgang Zach] (Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag 1990), pp.175-91 - quotes MacGahern: ‘The work should have been written tight the first time’; [it] lacked the distance, that inner formality or calm, that all writing, no matter what is attempting, must possess.’ (Preface to 2nd Edn. of The Leavetaking, 1984). Also: ‘the crippling caution I grew up with and have never been quite able to discard.’ (Q & A, 1984.) [Cont.]

Jürgen Kamm, ‘John McGahern’ in Contemporary Irish Novelists (1990) - further quotes: [on his experience living in Cootehall after the death of his mother:] ‘it was my first experience of the world as a lost world and the actual daily world as not quite real.’ (Q & A 1984). Kamm remarks: ‘It is entirely misleading to earmark McGahern as an “experimental” writer as his fictions are realistically told and the narrative tone is clearly indebted to the tradition of Irish story-telling. In fact, McGahern’s prose is most effective and assured in his descriptions of the provincial milieu which he knows so intimately.’ (p.187.) [Cont.]

Jürgen Kamm, ‘John McGahern’ in Contemporary Irish Novelists (1990) - cont: ‘The obscurity of the authorial voice can only partly be explained by the blurring of focus on account of McGahern’s introduction of non-Irish settings. [... I]t emerges that McGahern’s aesthetic concept is based on “vision [...] that still and private universe which each of us possess” [sic], which is generated artistically through “rhythm”, somewhat enigmatically defined as “the dynamic quality of vision [and] the image on which our whole life took its most complete expression once [...] the lost image that gave our lives expression, the image that would completely express it again in this bewilderment between our beginning and our end”.’ (Quoting McGahern, ‘The Image [&c.]’, Honest Ulsterman, 8, 1968, p.10.)

Jürgen Kamm, ‘John McGahern’ in Contemporary Irish Novelists (1990) - cont: ‘Not only is it refreshing to come across an author whose critical stance towards his own work surpasses that of some of his more well-diposed critics, but by drawing attention to the lack of distance between writer and his subject matter McGahern precisely discerns one of the major artistic problems that he is wrestling with in his fictions. This lack of distance results from the author’s repeated attempts at drawing on autobiographical experiences for the creation of his fictional worlds.’ (p.175; quoted in Paula McDonald, MA Diss., UUC 2011.)

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James Simmons, ‘The Recipe for all Misfortunes, Courage’: A study of three works by Ulster Protestant authors [Forrest Reid, Joyce Cary and Sam Hanna Bell]’, in Across the Roaring Hill: The Protestant Imagination in Modern Ireland - Essays in Honour of John Hewitt, ed. Gerald Dawe & Edna Longley (Belfast: Blackstaff 1985): ‘Our most widely admired living Catholic novelist, John McGahern, gets some of his power writing from deep within the society he grew up in; but his melancholic pessimism can irritate readers who want to shout in his ear, “There is a world elsewhere!” Of course McGahern travels widely and occasionally writes in a European setting; but there his power deserts him, as it does Heaney’s Antaeus, when his feet leave the holy ground.’

James Simmons, review of Amongst Women, in Linen Hall Review (Summer 1990), p.32: ‘I have carried the torch for McGahern since I read The Barracks twenty years ago ... The Dark had power all right [but] much less intellectual distinction [than Joyce’s Portrait] ... two novels that followed were neither here nor there ... frankly embarrassing passages ... three books of short stories ... had half a dozen pieces even better than The Barracks ... there was no better writer of prose fiction in Ireland. [...] Holding to this position makes the critics enemies. I only began to realise in the last ten years that there is a growth industry called “Irish writing” and it is kept going by all the published Irish writers either praising each other or shutting up. This works well for everybody [cites ‘geniuses’ and ‘wonders’ like Francis Stuart, Aidan Higgins, and Brian Coffey]; ... Patrick Kavanagh suffered much obloquy by putting his boot through the Irish Renaissance; [Amongst Women] not a very good novel ... offers a portrait of a monster, one McGahern has written about several times before ... daughters and the young wife though well presented haven’t enough individuality to carry the novel.’

James Simmons (reviewing Amongst Women, 1990) - cont: ‘McGahern’s work dominated by small farms where a sick old man tries to dominate his children, and all are absorbed in a love for a few fields and rituals of cultivation ... the Rosary that is said on ever sixth page ... without making much of it ... either it’s not worth reporting or it should be interpreted more subtly [...] What can he possibly be trying to say? ... My fear is that McGahern doesn’t care enough about what is happening in Ireland and the world and in his own life ... sitting in the farm out there in Leitrim trying to write deathless prose, refusing to wrestle with the necessary angels.’

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Joe Jackson, ‘Tales from the Darkside’ [interview] 15, 22, Hot Press (Nov. 14 1991), p.19-20: ‘You also write out of the realisation that the world you know is going to end ... I learned that writing, as with sexual love, is a way of revealing one’s mortality. And this realisation - whatever the loss - does, and did make life all the more precious than it was’; [McGahern on the death of his mother:] ‘But whatever was lost for me by that death I still saw, and see, love as the only real world.’ [On the censorship of The Dark:] ‘Unable to write for three or four years after the business.’ [On women:] ‘I admire women very much, see women as the centre of life whereas I see the male on the periphery. I also see women as much stronger than they are usually depicted, so that undoubtedly affects the way I present them in my work.’ (p. 19.) [Cont.]

Joe Jackson (‘Tales from the Darkside’ [interview], 1991) - cont.: ‘The whole notion of society was patriarchal, from the concept of God the father right down to the father who actually dominated the household and dictated even when the rosary should be said, and so forth.’ (p.19.) ‘When you drive anything underground, like sexuality or women - then you find that it ends up working subversively, differently and maybe more effectively. So the women in the book do emerge, in the end they become the father - yet despite what seem to be his “monstrous” characteristics the father himself is a person who loves and is worthy of being loved [...]’ (Jackson, p.20.)

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Edward Hirsch, ‘The Imaginary Irish Peasant’, PMLA, 106, 5 (Oct. 1991), pp.1116-1133: Hirsch begins by referencing Yeats, Synge, Lady Gregory, Joyce and Flann O’Brien - who “felt compelled to demythologise the peasant figure that was first imagined by the Revivalists” - Sean O’Faolain (“Noble Peasant is as dead as the Noble Savage”), Seamus Heaney’s “archaeological poems” and Michael Longley’s “Mayo Monologues” as well as “the relentlessly bleak vision of Irish rural life and society in John McGahern’s three novels: The Barracks (1963), The Dark (1965), and The Leavetaking (1974) - adding: ‘One legacy of the Revivalist’s glorification of the country people has been a nearly endless intertextual regress in Irish literature.’

    Further [Edward Hirsch]: ‘The romantic myth of the peasant was so powerful that not until the late 1970s and early 1980s did Irish writers systematically begin [1116] to interrogate and dismantle the terms of the Revivalist argument, the reductive centering of the country people in Irish literature.’ (1116-17.) ‘[The] process of turning the peasants into a single figure of literary art (“the peasant”) may be termed the “aestheticizing” of the Irish country people. (p.1117.) ‘[...] significant growth in European literacy rates. These changes indicate that the countryside was going through something like the last stage of rural proletarianisation. Indeed, as Malcolm Brown suggests, the agrarian changes were deep enough to transform the “human nature” of the Irish country people (Brown, The Politics of Irish Literature, p.294). That peasants no longer existed as such by the time they were being fiercely “discovered” and portrayed by Irish antiquarians and imaginative writers should point up that what mattered to those writers and their urban audiences was not so much what peasants were but what they represented. This gap or disjunction between the imaginary peasant (“a man who does not exist” [Yeats]) and the real country people illuminates the language that informed both Irish culture and, consequently, literature.’ [Cont.]

    [Hirsch - cont.:] ‘In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the Irish peasant was a figure deeply encoded with social, political, and and literary meaning, and to speak or write about that central image of Irish identify in the context of the time was to participate in a special kind of cultural discourse. The country people were important to Irish cultural and political nationalists not for their own sake but because of what they signified as a concept and as a language. To speak about “the peasant” was always to speak about something beyond actual rural life. To debate the characteristics of the peasant was to share a vocabulary; simultaneously, to undermine and attack someone’s idea of the peasant was to come uncomfortably close to attacking that person’s concept of the Irish social classes.’ (p.1118; - available at JSTOR Ireland - online). [See further remarks under Joyce, Commentary - as attached.]

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Denis Sampson, review of The Power of Darkness produced at the Abbey in the 1991 Festival [q. source]; focuses on the reception of the play and ‘the apparent unwillingness to consider melodrama as an appropriate vehicle for representing Irish society in the theatre.’ Brendan Kennelly and Colm Tóibín both wrote in the controversy that it was as if reviewers did not want to face the dark energies within the characters or the integrity of McGahern’s ideas. In the introduction to the printed play, McGahern explains that the BBC wanted a version of Tolstoy’s melodrama of evil, sin, and repentance in an Irish setting; he records that he became dissatisfied with his use of a ‘colourful and idiomatic’ speech, and his account of the genesis of the play indicates that he wanted to write a morality with a clarity of style and directness of action which would not evoke Synge’s peasant world; ‘The old fear of famine was confused with terror of damnation. The confusion and guilt and plain ignorance that surrounded sex turned men and women into exploiters and adversaries.’ McGahern recognises a familiar inner geometry of sex, powerlessness, and religion in Tolstoy’s melodrama. The review recalls that McGahern has said the Leitrim-Roscommon of the 1940s was really ‘a nineteenth century’ world, and thinks it unsurprising that he, like Friel and Kilroy, has returned to a 19th century text. McGahern has kept the main characters and incidents of the original. The character Nikita is now Paul; he exploits three young woman who are attracted by lust and romance, but actually have more compelling needs for marriage and security; there is the murder of the ageing farmer for whom he works, and whose daughter Eileen wants to marry him; there is a gruesome abortion; Paul’s mother coldly dominates him and manipulates his pious father. A drunken yet clear-sighted old soldier Paddy mocks Paul’s sudden repentance and despair. Reviewer mentions McGahern’s work for Channel four on The Rockingham Shoot, and the screenplay for The Pornographer. Directed by Gary Hynes, and greeted by uncomfortable audience reactions of tittering embarrassment.

Denis Sampson, review of The Collected Stories in Irish Literary Supplement (Fall 1993) [q.p.]; ‘conducting a philosophical investigation of paralysis through stylistic experiment’, and also review by Dolores MacKenna. Stories include [no order], “Wheels” [opening], “Old-fashioned”, “The Conversion of William Kirkwood”, Sierra Leone”, “Gold Watch”, “Back Holiday”, “Doorways”. “My Love, My Umbrella”, “Parachutes”, “Eddie Mac”, “Crossing the Line”, “High Ground” [anthologised in Oxford Book of Irish Short Stories, ed. William Trevor], “The Creamery Manager”, “The Country “ Funeral”, “The Recruiting Officer” [closing]. In Wheels, the narrator speaks of ‘repetition of a life in the shape of a story that had as much reason to go on as stop’; in “The Recruiting Officer” the central character feels ‘a total paralysis of will ... a feeling that one thing in his life is almost as worthwhile doing as any other’. Notice that the Kirkwoods are owners of a local big house; with Eddie Mac, this story records the supplanting of the Anglo-Irish class by native Catholics; William Kirkwood is ‘a mild figure of fun’ who confounds all by turning Catholic and marrying a local girl instead of a fiancée of his own class.

Denis Sampson, ‘The “Sacred Weather” of County Leitrim: John McGahern’s, Memoir’, in The Irish Review 36/37 (Winter 2007), pp.120-28: ‘Nostalgia does not interest McGahern, nor the recording of old rural customs (although country life of the nineteen thirties and forties is vividly evoked in Memoir), nor, indeed, the anger provoked by recalling his mad, abusive father and the repressive environment of Irish society in mid-century. McGahern’s project as an artist was stated early, in “The Image”, when he referred to art as “this Medusa’s mirror allowing us to see and to celebrate the totally intolerable”, and this memoir is a continuation of that project. It is the process of remembering the individual life and its moral significance that interests him, the process by which the imagination can find poetry even in brutality and desolation. In the closing pages of the book, when he returns to reinvigorate certain images taken from the opening evocation of the landscape of Leitrim, he remarks of his demonic father [and quotes:] “A life from which the past was so rigorously shut out had to be a life of darkness.” (Memoir, 2005, p.271.) In opposition to this darkness without memory, the visionary light that plays over the recollection of childhood with his mother and over the fields and lanes assume a contrary moral force. While Memoir contains many different kinds of writing, many different kinds of report from the front lines of the author’s battle for survival, it is held together by a fable about the inspiring power of his mother and the celebratory power of literature.’ (p.120.) [Cont.]

Denis Sampson (‘The “Sacred Weather” [...] John McGahern’s Memoir’, in The Irish Review, Winter 2007) - cont. [of McGahern’s mother]: ‘It was her faith, rather than the institutional church, which provided the “sacred weather” of his childhood; in the years after his mother’s death McGahern found private pleasures and satisfactions, especially reading, that nourished his independent character and his literary vocation of celebrating the intolerable. It is now abundantly clear why The Barracks, the image of the woman of deep faith dying of cancer, is the foundation text of his whole career.’ (q.p.: available online; quoted in Paula McDonald, MA Diss, UUC 2011 [16/10/2011].) [Note that McGahern described the Irish Catholic Church as ‘the weather of my early life’ on Gay Byrne’s Late Late Show (RTÉ) in 1965.]

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Denis Sampson, Young John McGahern: Becoming a Novelist (Oxford UP 2012):
McGahern appears to have quickly found his bearings in this literary discourse [i.e., at odds with the romanticised image of peasant life ... urban, modern, eclectic, and not followers of any established political or religious tradition]. Through his friendship with Eanna O hEiter, his attendance at the Gate Theate and art cinemas, and his sceptical dissent from the Gaelic and Catholic ambience of St Pat’s, he was already set on a cultural path away from the mainstream. His eclectic reading was markedly European in its emphasis throughout the 1950s: Dostoeyevksy, Thomas Mann, Prous, Chekhov, and other classic writers will be common reference points by the end of the decade. Although he did not know Joyce’s nae when he arrived in Dublin in 1953, he would soon move in a milieu in which Joyce’s work was revered. As he said later, he himself was inevitably Irish and could not be anything else, but to belabour the point or to adopt a self-conscious agenda of further some nationalist political or cultural agenda was anathema to him from the beginning.
Towards the end of 1855, a chance meeting wth Tony Swift, a young painter, set McGahern’s life along an entirely new track. Memoir relates that the meeting happened in the bar of a dancehall, and that it led ot his introduction into the Swift family and their home on Carrick Terrace, of Dublin’s South Circular Road. Five brothers ran a display advertising business, with a factory near Amiens Stree railway station, and in time, when he moved back to Dublin, he would become part of this large, close-knit family.
[45; ...]
James was the eldest, ten years older than McGahern. “When I went to Dublin”, McGahern told an interviewer, “I met a person who had a deep personal sense of ltierature, who put many books in my way, but he was far too intelligent to encourage anyone to write.” He is undoubtedly referring to Jimmy Swift. Jimmy had been in the Irish army before setting up the business [...]
McGahern entered into a life-long friendship with Jaames, “quietly brilliant and deeply read”, and the significance of this early friendship is marked by the dedication of The Barracks to him. [46; Sampson notes that he is a character in “Wheelings” and The Leavetaking where Lightfoot meets the protagonist in The Stag’s Head and is a Proustian.]
Patrick was a painter, seven years older than McGahern, and had lived in London much of the time since 1952, but his early interests and contacts in Dublin led, through James, to McGahern’s familiarity with a literary circle that would overlap other literary circles in Dublin and London over the next decade.
The origin of his passion for literature lay in Synge Street school, where he and his close friend John Jordan discovered Ulysses at the age of sixteen. [...] the precociousness of Swift and Jordan.
In their youth, Swift and Jordan devoted themselves to Joyce’s work for some time, both attached to the novelist of Dublin whose work seemed to bring their home place to surreal life. Swift memorised passages of Finnegans Wake and Ulysses and at an early age he became a well-known personality in literary pubs, with a prodigious memory for quotation from many literary classics. In art college, he had befriended John Ryan, who becanme the editor/publisher of Envoy, a short-lived but very significant literary review in 1949-51, where Swift’s first essays on art were published.
 It was in this context of Envoy that Swift met Patrick Kavanagh (for the promotion of whose work, it might be said, John Ryan had established Envoy) and other writers who were devotees of Kavanagh, such as Anthony Cronin. Cronin was assistant editor of The Bell and would later, throughout the 1950s and 1960s, work [47] in London published circles where he brefriended many poets, critics, and paiinters, a circle that included Patrick Swift for about a decade, Francis Bacon, Lucian [sic] Freud, and the South African poet David Wright. Literary magazines flourished in these years, in Dublin and in London, and McGahern quickly realized that they ewere a key part of establishing a literary presence. / In time, McGahern would meet, and linger with, many of these figures. [...]
(Sampson, op. cit., pp.45-48; available at Google Books - online; accessed 10.10.2015.

Terence Brown: ‘Each of his [McGahern’s] novels has a protagonist whose private world of feeling is explored with an obsessiveness which reminds us of the traditional Irish short story.’ (‘Redeeming the Time: The Novels of John McGahern and John Banville’, in James Acheson, ed., The British and Irish Novel since 1960, 1991, p.160.)

Sean Dunne, note to McGahern, ‘Why We’re Here’, in Dunne, ed., “Seán O Faoláin Special Issue”, Cork Review (Cork 1991): ‘[McGahern] has little in common with Seán O Faoláin but he greatly admires the stories of Daniel Corkery, O Faoláin’s early mentor. Like O Faoláin, he met with rancorous reaction to some of his first books.’ (pp.49-50.)

Eileen Battersby, review of Denis Sampson, Outstaring Nature’s Eye, the Fiction of John McGahern (1993): Sampson treats McGahern as a ‘symbolic realist’. Battersby provides a detailed reading of the novels to date and concludes that Sampson fails to arrive at the heart of his work. (Irish Times, Weekend [q.d.] Nov. 1993]. See also her review of That They May Face the Rising Sun, in The Irish Times (8 Dec. 2001).

Eamon Grennan, ‘“Only What Happens”: Mulling over McGahern’, in Irish University Review [John McGahern Special Issue] (Spring/Summer 2005), p.13-27: ‘[Quotes from “Strandhill, the Sea”] ‘Whenever I come across such sentences, and they are a McGahern habit, I wonder why this slight awkwardness. It’s as if the sentence bulges in a slightly ungainly way with its contents. But since it also works, since it deftly enhances the mood of the narrative in which it appears, I conclude that McGahern intends it (probably unconsciously) as a demonstration of the organic, muscular, bodily nature of style itself. I catch from such examples the sense that for McGahern style is an organic representation of much that cannot be, in substantive ways, said. That style itself, the story-teller’s nuanced use of language, is in an almost subliminal way telling us something about the slightly fraught nature of the reality he’s creating for us. Listen, for example, to the “dead of heart” narrator of The Pornographer musing: “It must surely be possible to be out of our life for the whole of our life if we could tell what our life is other than this painful becoming of ourselves”. In the actual prose here there is a kind of wilful awkwardness, as if the nature of the observation were frayed, had unfinished aspects, loose threads. The tone that such style creates is peculiarly intimate, obliging us to be very attentive listeners to a teller who has great confidence in his own telling mode, whatever the uncertainties and disquiets of the matter (or the character) he’s setting before us. / Each of these voices, all of them employed in the business of narrative, composes a separate layer of the texture of being in addition to letting us feel the very presence of the story-teller’s tone of voice. By moving between them as he does, McGahern manages to create his [16] own literary equivalent of Being itself.’ (p.16; see longer extract, as attached.)

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Gerry Smyth, The Novel and the Nation: Studies in the New Irish Fiction (London: Pluto Press 1997), pp.171-73: ‘[...] Moran’s anger at his self-inflicted exclusion from post-revolutionary Ireland feeds into deeper social and psychological losses. Having failed in the public sphere, Moran attempts to dominate the domestic sphere, thus hoping to compensate for his loss of power by installing himself as a patriarch in his own family. […] The family is important to Moran not because it is the cornerstone of the community nor for any genuine regard, but because it is vital to his own identity: “Families were what mattered, more particularly that larger version of himself - his family” (AW, p.22). / With the loss of his sons and his few male friends Moran is increasingly ‘amongst women’ - an ironic reference to the line from the ‘Hail Mary’ (‘Blessed art thou amongst Women’), the repeated recitation of which constitutes a major part of the Rosary. […] The narrative reveals that the Rosary was always an ambiguous weapon for an Irishman such as Moran in as much as it constitutes a tacit acknowledgement of the power of women and their centrality to patriarchal discourse. By choosing the domestic sphere as his theatre of operations, Moran confirms rather than mitigates his loss of power. This is because he is engaging with a discourse specifically characterised as female in post-revolutionary Ireland, especially after the Constitution of 1937 which included one article stating that ‘the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved’. [Cont.]

Gerry Smyth (The Novel and the Nation, 1997) - cont.: ‘Amongst Women offers an ambiguous image of life in modern Ireland in which traditional gender roles have been reversed. For the women walking from Moran’s grave ‘it was as if each of them in their different ways had become Daddy’ (AW, p.183); of the husbands and brothers and sons, on the other hand, Sheila says: ‘Will you look at the men. They’re more like a crowd of women’ (p.184). / There is in fact a formal and thematic economy at work throughout the narrative which weighs a note of elegy for the loss of Irish manhood against a celebration of the re-empowerment of women and the breakdown of artificial gender borders imposed by the post-colonial state. The narrator gives many clues to Moran’s personality, as well as offering the occasional bald summary, for example: “No matter how favourably the tides turned for him he would always contrive to be in permanent opposition” (AW, p.163). It is not possible, however, to discern or to adopt a final position regarding Moran from these offerings, and the question of the morality of ‘permanent opposition’ is left to the individual reader and the particular array of resources brought to bear on the text. / What the novel does achieve, however, is an astute portrayal of a post-colonial life in which disappointment and frustration are the typical informing emotions, at the level of both individual and state. [...] McGahern creates an organic narrative in which meaning is alive, active and readergenerated rather than passive and author-imposed. Amongst Women makes deceptively easy reading, but the balance between what the narrator tells the reader and what the reader is enabled to infer from the characters’ actions and words, as well as from the overall structure of the narrative, is brilliantly maintained.’ (pp.172-73.)

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Belinda McKeon, ‘Make of it What you Will’, interview with John McGahern, in Trinity News (April 2000), relates that when The Dark was banned in Ireland, McGahern returned to find that he no longer had a job as a teacher; his refusal to comment gained him as much notoriety as the controversy itself; a decision that was met with a mixture of frustration and respect by journalists. Quotes McGahern: ‘Well, it [a book] doesn’t come alive unless it finds a reader. A book is a coffin of words until it finds a reader [...] if it’s to live, it’ll live in other minds.’ I think that good writing works far more powerfully as a suggestion rather than a statement [...] Because when the reader - and writers are readers too - takes the images, naturally they’ll make something completely different than what the writer intended. They’ll be taking the images into their world.’ Further [JMcG]: ‘I actually felt very ashamed that we had a censorship board in that we were a free country. And in a way, I was of the first generation to grow up in a free country. And it was one’s own country that was a kind of laughing stock.’ [Cont.]

Belinda McKeon (‘Make of it What you Will’, in Trinity News, 2000) - cont.:

[JMcG:] ‘I actually find the whole censorship thing irrelevant. I mean, it was a kind of harmless censorship board [...] if there was a censorship board, say, like Isaac Babel in Russia had to put up with, you know, where he was executed [...] well, that would be real censorship. I never defended myself when I was banned or sacked, and there was a reason for that, which was that one had nothing but contempt for it. And all that mattered was whether one wrote well or not. And this business obscured this activity, which was really the only thing that mattered.’ Writing and farming are the only occupations that matter to McGahern since his days as a teacher were brought to an end; he grew up in countryside between Leitrim and Roscommon; falling back into the waiting embrace of existing myths and narratives not an option.

‘Of course, one senses that one is in a tradition of the writers that one admires. But I didn’t come out of a literary tradition, and the people I came from didn’t read, never mind write’; interviewer calls this ‘the source of autonomy that sent the bastions of the Church and State into paroxysms of outrage in 1965; You just want to get the words right, you don’t give up because you’re trying to get it right. And in that sense, I think the writer is always a beginner.’ McGahern Speaks of new novel due out in coming months, ten years after Amongst Women; ‘They [the publishers] are quite annoyed. They want a novel as quickly as possible. But I can’t write like that. Basically, I don’t think that you can actually keep it for long enough.’ McGahern speaks of The Leavetaking as falling short of his demands regarding the need to deal honestly with emotion.’

McGahern remarks that the original edition lacked a necessary ‘distance, that inner formality or calm’; ‘On one level, it’s a private act, but on another it’s a public language; And if it remained private speech it would be uninteresting. When I was a student I went to lectures that Patrick Kavanagh gave at UCD, when he was writing those sonnets that became the canal bank sonnets. And it was actually quite unfashionable to write sonnets at that time, it was the time of free verse. But he said that he thought that the sonnet was the expression of the love poem. And that the fourteen line sonnet with its shapes and forms was the envelope of love, and if one wanted to write a proper letter to one’s love, on e had to put it into a proper envelope. And to a certain extent, if you can follow that, the novel or the short story or whatever it is, has actually to be put into a kind of envelope. I actually think that if there wasn’t that difficulty of formality and form, that it would lose a lot of its tension; that oddly enough, it seems to me that self-expression is almost no expression.’

McKeon notes McGahern’s opposition to confessional approach. ‘There comes a time in your reading when you realise that all stories are more or less the same story’ [he says] ‘It has to do with consciousness [...] I think that when you’re very young, you never think that you’re going to die. And I think that when you realise that, then the quality of the language or the quality of the writing becomes more important than the story, or the material out of which the story is shaped.’ Further, ‘I see that the basic search of art is the search for the image. Even on a practical working level, the search is to find an image that illuminates things, which is actually a very everyday language.’ McKeon remarks that McGahern’s respect for the rituals and ceremonies of religion has not diminished but that Art is his god now and the conversion from religious piety to aesthetic appreciation was a smooth one. Quotes, ‘But isn’t art a sort of ritual? I mean, it’s to deepen and enrich and give meaning, because otherwise our life is just the life of the beasts.’

Further, ‘I think that when you’re younger, you don’t really know what’s going on. And that as you get older you do know a lot of what’s going on. Much of it isn’t very comforting. But that knowledge is a kind of power, and a kind of joy as well, against the night.’ [End]. (p.14.)

Lilian Louvel, Ben Forkner, et al., interview with John McGahern, in Journal of the Short Story in English [JSSE], 41 (Autumn 200

In “The Image”, the unique piece of self-criticism that McGahern has written [3], the image, the vision, the rhythm are linked in a dialectical movement. The image is presented as a screen that projects memory and emotion, but it is also used to screen them off, as a protective barrier. “Medusa’s mirror” referred to in the short manifesto fends off “the intolerable.” Like Perseus’s shield, it has an apotropaïc function. A screen and a mirror, art serves to ward off the blows of fate. The work is a mediation as well as a cosmos.

The writer “in search of the lost image”, attempts “to create a world in which we can live”, and to come to terms with our human condition, thanks to “a world of the imagination” over which we can reign “to reflect purely on our situation through this created world of ours.” And “the world of imagination” is central to McGahern’s short stories. Thus the creator may be able to see and to celebrate even the “totally intolerable” through the image, as shown in McGahern’s most recent short story “Love of the World”: “As she turned back she heard a sharp click, but did not turn to see him lift the gun. One hand was reaching for the door when she fell, the other closed tight. When it was opened, it held a fistful of small black currants.” (p.37).

See full-text copy - as attached.


Robert McCrum, ‘The Whole World in a Community’ [interview with John McGahern], in The Observer (6 Jan. 2002), McCrum [quoting That They May Face the Rising Sun]: ‘“He felt this must be happiness. As soon as the thought came to him he fought it back, blaming the whiskey. The very idea was as dangerous as presumptive speech. Happiness could not be sought or worried into being, or even fully grasped. It should be allowed its own slow pace so that it passes unnoticed if it ever comes at all.”’ Is that your view? McGahern: ‘That’s exactly it. I think that complete happiness isn’t possible in life and when it happens it’s not noticed. I think people forget that complete unhappiness is as equally unachievable as complete happiness.’ (See full-text version in RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index or direct.)

Nicholas Wroe, ‘John McGahern: Ireland’s Rural Elegist’ [“Profile”], in The Guardian (Sat. 5 Jan. 2002): ‘[...] Shortly after its publication in 1965, John McGahern’s second novel, The Dark, was banned by the Irish state censor for obscenity. The story was set, as so much of McGahern’s later fiction would be, in isolated rural Ireland and dealt with the bleak consequences of parental and clerical child abuse. On the instructions of the Archbishop of Dublin, McGahern was sacked from his job as a primary school teacher. He later left the country. Despite these apparent setbacks, McGahern’s literary friends reassured him that all this was a wonderful opportunity in terms of publicity and sales. Remember Joyce and Beckett being forced overseas? This was Irish literary history repeating itself, and preparations were soon being made to mount a campaign against the anachronistic and widely derided censorship laws with McGahern as the figurehead. [../..] McGahern agreed that the situation was indeed absurd, and says that even as an adolescent reader he had nothing but contempt for the censorship board. But he nevertheless decided not to protest and instead maintained a public silence. “I didn’t think it was worth protesting about,” he says. “I didn’t want to dignify it.” More than this, when he heard that representations were being made in his name he asked that they be withdrawn. / He was particularly grateful to Samuel Beckett, who had read the book and agreed to speak on his behalf, for writing to him before going public to ask if his support was wanted. “I wrote back to thank him, but said I didn’t want any protest. If it wasn’t for Mr Beckett writing to me I wouldn’t have even been asked. I was secretly ashamed. Not because of the book, but because this was our country and we were making bloody fools of ourselves.”’ (See full text, infra.)

Shirley Kelly, ‘The Writing keeps the cattle in high style’, interview with John McGahern, in Books Ireland (Feb. 2002), p.5-6. Quotes: ‘I think the glorification of writers is a dangerous thing. One writes because one needs to write. I didn’t need to, I wouldn’t It’s as if I can’t know what I’m thinking until I write it down. And sometimes I might have an idea in my head for a long time, and when I write it down it disappears. A lot of nonsense is written about themes and subjects and the whole writing process. People imagine that it’s all very deliberate and planned out, that you choose your theme and then proceed from there. In fact, most writers don’t choose their themes at all, the theme chooses them. That’s certainly the case with my writing.’ Amongst Women won Irish Times Award and GPA Award (£50,000); shortlisted for Booker; made into a 4-part TV series with Tony Doyle. The Rising Sun view a close-knit farming community through the eyes of Joe Ruttledge, a native returned from London with his American wife. Quotes: ‘I’ve always thought that one of the functions of the writer is to celebrate and to praise. Maybe that doesn’t come across in my earlier work, but all the writer can do is write what he has to write at the time. Of course one’s vision of life changes. There’d be something wrong with a person if he didn’t change at all.’ [Cont.]

Shirley Kelly (‘The Writing keeps the cattle in high style’, interview with McGahern, in Books Ireland, Feb. 2002) - cont.: ‘It wasn’t a vocation as such. Even at that time, university education belonged for the most part to the middle class, but if you were good at school the state would pay for you to train as a teacher and give you a job at the end of it. So I went to St. Patrick’s, and UCD, and got a job teaching seven to eight year olds in a north Dublin school. I was very fond of them and I enjoyed teaching. And school finished at two o’clock, so there was plenty of time for reading and writing.’ On the banning of The Dark (1965): ‘The banning of the book wasn’t a big deal, really. People who read and talked about books all thought that the Censorship Board was a joke, Most of the books that were banned, like most that are published, weren’t worth reading, and it wasn’t difficult to get hold of those that were. But the fact that I was sacked from my job caused a bit of a stir. It was raised in the Dáil. A member of the Labour Party asked Jack Lynch, who was then minister for education, why the stated trained and paid teachers but appeared to have no say in their hiring or firing. Lynch gave [5] a typically evasive civil servant’s answer. “When the Church decides to fire someone”, he said, “they usually have a good reason”.’ McGahern took part-time teaching work at Reading: ‘A very nice man, who liked my work and was professor of English at Reading, gave me a job teaching the students. He said, “Teach them anything you like. I have been teaching them for the last twenty-eight years and they have not understood one word I’ve said. And you can take my word for it that they won’t understand anything you teach them either, so teach them what you want!”’. [Cont.]

Shirley Kelly (‘The Writing keeps the cattle in high style’, interview with McGahern, in Books Ireland, Feb. 2002) - cont.: McGahern moved to Spain, then France; returned to London; invited to teach at Colgate Univ., USA; m. Madeleine, from New York; worked intermittently at Colgate up to 1974; received British Council award, covering two years to 1974; settled in Leitrim with Madeleine; ‘the writing keeps the cattle in high style!’ Further quotes: ‘I like travelling, and being abroad can be very pleasurable, simply because one has no responsibility for what’s going on. But I’ve never written much about other places. I think one can pick up the nuances of one’s own society, but not of a foreign society, I don’t thing the writing would ring true. / As for the rural setting, I don’t think of myself as belonging either to the country or the city. I think one’s sense of place is in one’s mind. Each person has a private world that others cannot see, and my private world is made up of trees and water. It’s that private world that we read with, and the difference between the writer and the reader is that the writer can dramatise that world. But a book doesn’t come alive until it’s been read.’ McGahern tells of a Sligo fan who writes that Moran is very like her father - seeking matches for his eight daughters (‘and if you saw what he brought in that was attached to the land,’ she said, ‘you wouldn’t wonder why we’re all in England!’)

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Desmond Traynor, reviewing That They May Face the Rising Sun, in Books Ireland (Feb. 2002), writes of ‘[...] The impeccable gift he has for orchestraiting conversation between people is perhaps his greatest conversational resource. For, what’s finally important in fiction, far more important than ideas or wit or style or knowledge or theories, and just as important as vision, are moments of emotional truth.’ Further, ‘McGahern pulls it off, every time, without a false note or jarring moment. This is especially noticeable in scenes like the laying out of Johnny, who dies suddenly while home on holiday from England; or in the digging of his grave, which gives the book its title.The pagan is older than the Christian, and he must be buried with his head to the west, so that he may face the rising sun in the east.’ Quotes final sentence: ‘At the porch, before entering the house, they both [Joe and Kate] turned to look back across the lake, even though they knew that both Jamesie and Mary had long since disappeared from the sky.’ Characters are: Jamesie and Mary, the Ruttledges’ neighbours; the Shah, Ruttledge’s rich, single, teetotal entrepreneurial uncle; Frank Dolan, the employee with who he has a strange uncommunicative relationship; Monica, the Shah’s widowed sister; loquacious, libidinous and ultimately viciously misogynist John Quinn; Johnny, Jamesie’s brother who emigrated to London to follow hopeless love and wound up a rootless bachelor at Ford’s in Dageham; Jimmy Joe McKiernan, auctioneer, undertaker and IRA ringleader; Patrick Ryan, asexual jack of all trades; brutalised Bill Evans, victim of system of hiring orphans as cheap labour; Fr. Conroy, the decent parish priest; Jim, the civil service son of Jamesie and Mary, and his self-important wife Lucy and their children [~]. (p.23.)

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Robert MacFarlane, review of That they May Face the Rising Sun, Times Literary Supplement, 18 Jan. [2002], p.28: MacFarlane notes that twentieth-century Irish writing has often ‘taken up and extended the sense that scrutiny of the local is a route to the universal’: ‘The fiction of John McGahern is infused with this faith that the particular reveals the general [...] His writing tends to centre on a single family, or place (usually in the Leitrim-Roscommon region of Ireland), and to explore within their tight focus the archetypal human themes of love, conflict and loss - what he summarises as “the ebb and flow of human relations”. As with Heaney, McGahern’s fascination for the metaphysics of the parish precipitates out into the language of his work. The rare moments of epiphany in his work almost all involve framing or enclosure: sky glimpsed through the rafters, pople appearing suddenly in doorways or at winders. For McGahern, to fram is in some way to transfigure.’ Further, ‘Beyond its strong sense of place, and its realistic characters, this is a highly unconventional piece of fiction. It is chapterless and, in conventional terms, plotless. In a style so reduced as to be barely perceptible, McGahern simply describes life by the lake - the changing appearance of th elanscape, the conversation and the behaviour of the characters.’ McFarlane asks ‘[h]ow to describe a book like this?’, and answers: ‘Like Breughal, McGahern is fascinated by the connections between landscape and memory, and the way sin which human rituals emulate and overplap with the natural rhythms of the earth. [...] Custom is often presented as a fossilising force [...] but more often as an enabling one’. Quotes a ‘typical passage of time-keeping’: “The night air was sweet with cut grass and meadowswee and wild woodbine. A bird moved in some high branch and was still. The clear yellow outlines of the stacked bales were sharp in the ghostly meadow under the big moon and the towering shapes of the tres. Headlights of a passing car from across the lake were caught like little moons in the window of the porch as it travelled towards Shruhaun.’ MacFarlane remarks on the ‘celebrated plain style’ tha tit is’a style which has been refined by practice to its essentials, and which achieves its effects almost unnoticed … undemonstrative, but never austere[; t]here is nothing extraneous, no residue. Nothing is left over from the process of description.’ Reminds us that McGahern has described his short stories as “explosions” and calls the present work a ‘serene calendrical novel’ in which McGahern ‘has again found a route to the universal’.

Patricia Deevy, ‘A light in the darkness’ [interview], in Irish Independent (30 Dec. 2001): &145;Good to keep in mind that steely will and intellectual confidence when charmed by the jolly chuckles and that boggy voice which seems to replicate the landscape from which it springs, with vowels which are wide and loose and shallow. Words like complicated, education, gratitude acquire a soft “h” sound to become “compli-hated”, “educ’hation”, “grahatude”. (See further quotations on loss of mother and the experience of divorce, under Quotations > infra; available online.)

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Hermione Lee, ‘Everything under the Sun’, review of That They May Face the Rising Sun, in The Observer (6 Jan. 2002): ‘[...] The violence just over the border is close; it colours the whole history of the region. An IRA man, who is also the local auctioneer, is at work in the town. Every year there is a procession to commemorate a terrible ambush by the Black and Tans, a story of slaughter and betrayal. It’s a story that gives a sinister, dark ring to the innocent friendly call of greeting - ‘Hel-lo. Hel-lo. Hel-lo’ - that opens the novel. McGahern’s benign alter ego, Joe Ruttledge, speaks out fiercely against violence towards the end of the book./ And Joe suggests to us how this intensely local story, sturdy with work and things, shining with the visible world, opens out into larger meanings and ideas. Helping the builder with the shed roof, he observes ‘how the rafters frame the sky. How they make it look more human by reducing the sky, and then the whole sky grows out from that small space’. ‘As long as they hold the iron, lad, they’ll do,’ the builder replies./ Both sides, the philosopher and the pragmatist, speak with equal force. But this great and moving novel, which looks so quiet and provincial, opens out through its small frame to our most troubling and essential questions. How well do we remember? How do we make our choices in life? Why do we need repetition? What is to remain of us? Above all, what can happiness consist in?’ (End; see full-text version in RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index, or direct.)

Hermione Lee, ‘A Sly Twinkle’, review-article on Love of the World: Essays, in Times Literary Supplement (4 Dec. 2009), pp.3-5. On Amongst Woman: ‘Moran is a man of fixed behaviour. [...] an embittered failure who detests the crowd of “small-minded gangsters” then running the country, and has no illusions about his part in the history of the Republic: “Don’t let anybody fool you. We were a bunch of killers”. He is a gloomy, doggedly pious, short-tempered and brutal man. The novel describes, with alarming quietness, his domination over his second wife, Rose, whom he married so that she could look after his three daughters and his younger son. The older son, the one who got away, has escaped to London. Rose’s creative endurance of an impossible marriage – a powerful study of female stoicism – is meshed in with the daughters’ painfully mixed feelings towards their father, and with the sons’ revolt. The family’s conspiratorial resistance to their tyrant is wonderfully done, and Moran’s dark turbulence is invoked in that grave, measured language which is McGahern’s signature’ (p.3.) [Cont.]

Hermione Lee (‘A Sly Twinkle’, in Times Literary Supplement, 4 Dec. 2009), cont.: On That They May See the Rising Sun: ‘Very little happens in the novel, but everything that happens is “news”. Nothing goes unremarked. “Have you any news?” “No news. Came looking for news.” That is a running joke between the two couples living on the lake, Joe and Kate Ruttledge, who have lived and worked in England but have returned to the place Joe knows from childhood, and Jamesie and Mary Murphy, natives of the country: “I’ve never, never moved from here and I know the whole world”, Jamesie boasts. There is affection and dependency between the four, but also reserve and distance. Their visits are marked by ritual jokes and by the retelling of stories they already know. “I’m sure I told it all before.” “Go ahead. There’s nothing new in the world. And we forget. We’ll hear it again.” Memories and stories recur. Clocks strike irregularly. (“What hurry’s on you?”) It’s hard at first to work out when this is taking place: the 1930s, the 50s, the 90s? Then we see the Murphys compulsively watching Blind Date. Telephone lines are being put in, at last. Over the border, a few years ago, there was the atrocity at Enniskillen. [...] this moving novel, which looks so quiet and so provincial, opens out through its small frame to troubling and essential questions. How well do we remember? How do we make our choices in life? Will there be any other life than this? What is to remain of us? Above all, what can happiness consist in? “The very idea was dangerous ... happiness could not be sought or worried into being, or even fully grasped; it should be allowed its own slow pace so that it passes unnoticed, if it ever comes at all.”’ (p.4.) [Cont.]

Hermione Lee (‘A Sly Twinkle’, in Times Literary Supplement, 4 Dec. 2009), cont.: On Love of the World: There is a great deal in Love of the World about how to write and what writing is for, and all of it reflects back on his own work. Art is McGahern’s alternative to, or replacement for, religion. Writing gives us “a world in which we can live ... a world of the imagination over which we can reign”. Fictional writing, if it is to work well, must converge on and produce what he calls “an image”: “the clean image that moves us out into the light”. It must find the right rhythm, and it must be rooted in the local and the particular. “Everything interesting begins with one person and in one place.” “All good writing is local and is made universal through clear thinking and deep feeling finding the right expression and in so doing reflects all the [4]particular form is capable of reflecting, including the social and the political”. It must be controlled by reason, but it must also be able to let go and trust to instinct. There must be “emotional truth and accuracy”. But it must not be uncontrolled “self-expression”: for McGahern, as for his hero Flaubert, that is “the opposite of creativity”.’ (pp.4-5.) (See full-text version in RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index, or direct.)

Seamus Deane, ‘A New Dawn’, review of That They May Face the Rising Sun, in The Guardian (12 Jan. 2002): ‘This book is a strange and wonderful mixture of various genres of writing - narrative in the basic sense, but also a meditation, a memoir, a retrospect, an anthropological study of a community, a culminating and therapeutic reprise of the author’s own career, a celebration of an Ireland that had formerly been the object of chill analysis as well as of loving evocation. All these aspects are contained within a capacious style that has all the lucidity and intensity we have become accustomed to in McGahern, but inflected by a tone of forgiveness and acceptance that adds an amplitude and serenity rarely achieved in fiction. There are no chapter divisions, yet this merely enhances the sense of structure; the repetition of passages and phrases functions more clearly, more musically, without the conventional divisions. Also enhanced is the sense of continuity, of particular lives unfolding day-to-day, seasonally, in relation to the rhythms of farming and cultivation, of the natural world, and historically, in relation to the shifting socio-economic and political forces in Ireland in the recent past.’ Deane speaks of ‘the grammar of the implacable existence of things, a writing style that wants to reduce the mediation between itself and the world it represents as much as possible.’

Further [Deane, review of TTMFRS, in Guardian, 2002]: ‘Perhaps what McGahern has done is to show that the opposing elements within an individual and/or a community can indeed be understood as a contrast between civilised and retarded, even anachronistic elements; but that this is only one mode of viewing them - even though it remains a useful one, especially when he is read as an historical novelist. In this regard, he could be compared with Sean O’Faolain, whose vision as a writer is almost wholly consumed by that contrast and for whom the modern and the economically prosperous are conditions of virtue. / McGahern’s work is far subtler and ultimately much more generous in spirit [.../] These dead and their traditions no longer weigh like a nightmare on the brain of the living. They have been incorporated into consciousness. At last an Irish author has awakened from the nightmare of history and given us a sense of liberation which is not dependent on flight or emigration or escape.’ (See full-text version in RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index or direct.)

Note: For his purposes in this article Deane conflates the famous sentence on history as ‘the nightmare from which I am trying to awake’ (Stephen in the “Nestor” episode of Ulysses) with Karl Marx’s epigram to the effect that ‘[t]he tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living’, in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon.

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Declan Kiberd, Interview with Eamon Maher, ‘John McGahern: Writer, Stylist, Seeker of a Lost World’, in Doctrine & Life, 5 (Feb. 2001), pp.82-97: ‘People first of all shuddered and then they realised: “My God, he has told our innermost story!” ... I think people have that feeling when they read McGahern: in some way the history of their own families has been told with a kind of tenderness and honesty and a mixture of wistfulness and longing, that is appropriate to the dignity of the experience. So they actually feel ratified by him, they who refused once to ratify him.’ (p.93; quoted in Maher, review of James Whyte, History, Myth and Ritual in the Fiction of John McGahern, in Irish University Review, Autumn/Winter 2003, p.461.)

Declan Kiberd, ‘Portraits of a paradise lost’, review of John McGahern, Memoir, in The Irish Times (3 Sept. 2005), Weekend. [...] McGahern struggles to be both accurate and artistic, constantly checking his memory against the evidence of family letters written by father, mother and close relations. Much of this material has been covered already in some of the finest short stories, novels and essays produced in the English language over the past 40 years. / Memoir might therefore seem like the mine from which that great oeuvre has been dug, in much the same way as The Aran Islands is known to have been a source for so many plots of J. M. Synge. But there is one major difference. The Aran Islands was written before most of Synge’s plays, whereas Memoir comes after McGahern’s major books. It is as if this is offered not so much as a source-book for scholarly explicators but rather as yet another artistic rendition of the baseline experiences. [...] It may well be that, like the purest artists, he has but a few stories and that he must tell them over and over as personal testimony rather than fiction - to “fail again, fail better”. Perhaps he may, in writing it all out just one more time, hope to forget and bury much of it for good. He finds at the heart of his childhood that very pain which led him, in some desperation, to evoke it. However, while the child could see no end to suffering, the adult can, for his words can soothe the pain by the simple expedient of describing it so very well. [...] Memoir is a surprisingly personal utterance from an artist too serene for self-assertion, but one who once again allows entire culture to speak through him, as once it expressed itself through the scrupulous, unshowy words of Tomás Ó Criomhthainn. Their books stand supreme in the Irish canon as examples of autobiography without egotism.’ (See full-text version in RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index or direct.)

Declan Kiberd, Forword to Essays on John McGahern: Assessing a Literary Legacy, ed. Derek Hand & Eamon Maher (Cork UP 2019) -
—Publication notice at Cork University Press; 18.03.2019 - online; click page-images to enlarge.

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Andrew Motion, ‘Figure in a landscape’, review of Memoir, in The Guardian (Sat. 17 Sept. 2005): ‘John McGahern’s Memoir is painfully aware of its larger significance as an account of growing up in rural Ireland during the 1940s and 50s. “Much has been written,” he says, “about the collusion of church and state to bring about an Irish society that was childish, repressive and sectarian, and this narrative hardly suggests otherwise. People, especially young people, will find ways around a foolish system, and difficulty can often serve to sharpen desire, but many who could not were damaged or were driven into damaged lives.” As it turns out, this kind of generalisation only begins to emerge in the last third of the book. Its main focus, and the most compelling part of its narrative, concentrates on the smaller-scale agonies and ecstasies of family life. In this respect, it forms a continuum with McGahern’s novels, which masterfully assemble easily overlooked details to create a proper density of scene and character. At the same time, it breaks new ground - not just because everything it contains has a manifestly personal value, but because McGahern has such success in exploiting the unrivalled clarity of a child’s-eye view. [...] It’s often the case with autobiography, especially the kind that honours a young child’s point of view, that the writing texture thins as it moves into adulthood. The structure of time becomes more coherent, the sense of comparison and trajectory grows more developed, the immersion in things is replaced by the appeal of story. That’s all true of Memoir as McGahern remembers his first visits to England, his first marriage, his early publications, then his second marriage and the eventual return to Leitrim. But the circular journey of the book proves that McGahern knows he can’t ignore - or, imaginatively speaking, do without - the scenes of his childhood. In this sense his book is an act of healing, perhaps even of forgiveness, as well as a probing of deep wounds. In a tremendously distinguished career, he has never written more movingly, or with a sharper eye.’ (See full-text version in RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index or direct.)

Stanley van der Ziel, ‘“All This Talk and Struggle”: John McGahern’s The Dark, in Irish University Review (March 2005), pp.104-120: ‘No pattern can, I think, be discovered in what appears to be the arbitrary assignment of different pronouns to the various chapters of The Dark. It would not be unreasonable to expect that a certain mindset or emotional state of the narrator in a chapter would always correspond with a certain pronoun, or that a certain kind of event would always be rendered from the same narrative perspective. However ... no such predictable pattern can be discovered in the pronouns’ (p.112; quoted in Rebecca A. Demarest, ‘A Psychoanalytic Deconstruction of Perspective in John McGahern’s The Dark’, at Student Pulse, vol. 2, No. 10 (2010) - online; accessed

Note - Demarest remarks: ‘If van der Ziel had looked closer at the construction of the point of view rather than assuming it was secondary to the lack of a name, he might have understood that the various nuances of the similar scenes is what determines the changes in perspective’ - and offers an interpretation in which the second person is used for chapters and sections where the young Mahoney is gaining possession of himself and his life and the third in those parts where he is subject to the depersonalising effect of the father’s abuse. He also notes that Ziel identifies the seemingly arbitrary use of pronouns with the character’s search for identity.

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Richard Pine, ‘John McGahern - Ireland’s leading novelist, whose work reflected his country’s new self-confidence’ obituary notice in The Guardian (31 March 2006): ‘[...] Even in the mid-1960s the social and cultural stigma attached to the author of a banned book was enormous. Moreover, McGahern had, in 1965, also committed the solecism of marrying a Finnish theatre director, Annikki Laaksi, which had contributed to the refusal of his trade union to fight his case. He later recorded that he was told: “If it was just the auld book, we might have been able to do something for you, but with marrying this foreign woman you have turned yourself into a hopeless case.” [...T]he effect on McGahern was shattering, and he went abroad for almost a decade before returning to a small farm in Leitrim, near his birthplace. He attributed his subsequent introspection and partial withdrawal from society to the ban and dismissal, but the autobiographical nature of The Barracks and The Dark had already set the tone for his major themes: domestic interiors (in every sense of the word), the relationships of men to women and of parents to children, and the mindscape of traditionalist rural Ireland. The Leavetaking, which followed this decade of silence, was perhaps marred by his personal despair and was radically revised in 1984, prefaced by the author’s appraisal that “the crudity I was attempting to portray had itself become blatant”. Despite the pervasive note of despair and entrapment, there was some light in the tautly disciplined prose, which suggests at least the idea of hope and even redemption. He strove for what he called “that inner formality or calm that all writing, no matter what it is attempting, must possess”, and when his characters also achieve that calm, the architecture of the work and its human and physical contours become one. / As his work progressed, the early anxieties faded: in his masterpiece, Amongst Women, and his last book of fiction, That They May Face the Rising Sun, he depicts lives that can be lived on their own terms, rather than by those of family or environment.’ (See full-text version in RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index or direct.)

John F. Clarity, obit. notice on McGahern in New York Times (31 March 2006): ‘[... T]hough his father and some of his characters were unhappy former IRA guerrillas, he never praised the IRA and said he “hated nationalism” of any stripe. Describing his boyhood in the Midlands, near Roscommon and Boyle, he wrote that there were few books in the house. But he discovered literature thanks to a pair of neighbors, whom he described as eccentric Protestant men living in a shabby mansion. He read Shakespeare but preferred “Treasure Island” and “Robinson Crusoe.” His favorite novelist was Jane Austen. / Mr McGahern said he was “not a believer” and did not go to church. Writing in the London newspaper The Independent in 1995, he said he had been put off by the “almost total power” the church held over Ireland of the 1940’s and 50’s. / “The ordinary farming people had to conform to the strict observances,” he wrote, “and to pay their dues to the Church from small resources, but outside that they paid it little attention. They went about their sensible pagan lives as they had done for centuries, seeing it as just another of the fictions that they’d been forced to kowtow to, like all the others since the time of the Druids.” / In one interview, noting Ireland’s reputation as a birthplace of great writers, he said the Irish people “write as badly as everywhere else.” / “I don’t label myself as an Irish writer,” he said, “but there’s nothing else I could be. A writer reflects his society by getting one’s language right. My only concern is that I get the sentence right and describe my world clearly and deeply.” / Acknowledging that many readers and critics found his work pessimistic, if not depressing, he offered a joke: “My favorite optimist,” he said, “was an American who jumped off the Empire State Building, and as he passed the 42nd floor, the window washers heard him say, ‘So far, so good.’”’ [Available online.]

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John Kenny, ‘A last bow - now applaud’, review of Creatures of the Earth: New and Selected Stories by John McGahern, in The Irish Times (2 Dec. 2006), Weekend: ‘John McGahern’s sophistication was proven rather than belied by his characteristic modesty, mannerliness and amicability, his particular sense of the social inscribed in one of his favourite words: tact. Whether his tactfulness was endemic or was the practised, sometimes mischievous, guardian of other selves is not at issue; what matters is its intended effect, within and without the work. He admired E. R. Dodds’s distinction between the moral impulse necessitated by man’s relations with others, and the religious impulse that emerges from man’s relationship with his total environment. His combined respect for both impulses was tantamount to a profoundly intuitive democracy of feeling, and his resultant disallowing of absolutes of human value was total. “A writer’s opinion on anything,” he remarked, “is no more interesting than a footballer’s”.’ (See full-text version in RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index or direct.)

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Joseph O’Connor, ‘Mine’s a Pint’ [...], in the Guardian (16 Aug. 2008): ‘At University College Dublin in the 80s, I read The Barracks, The Dark and more of the stories. I found them strange, always enthralling, stylistically flawless, but more touching than almost anything I had read. His account, clearly autobiographical, of a young man’s early days at university - the first of his family ever to know such an experience - moves me still. […] And then came his masterpiece Amongst Women, the most important Irish novel of my lifetime. So much has been written and said about this sparely magnificent book. It conjures a world that is absolutely specific to itself, down to the most minuscule, seemingly inconsequential detail, but in so doing achieves the alchemy of saying something about every life. Not for nothing did this novel become a perennial bestseller in Ireland, as well as being garlanded with critical accolades. The family it depicts is somehow every Irish family of a certain era, held together by its secrets, bound by its evasions, by a nexus of loyalties, only one of which is love. Indeed, it is difficult not to read the Morans as embodying the uneasy nation in which they exist. […] His final novel, That They May Face the Rising Sun, took 11 years to make and surprised many of its creator’s admirers by addressing that rarest of Irish literary subjects: happiness. Here on the lakeside, near to Gloria Bog, little is happening beyond the everyday syncopations - yet, as ever, McGahern unearths resonant beauty. Gossip is a currency, as always in Ireland, and his dialogue abounds with the juiciness of popular speech. It is his most audaciously structured book, almost completely devoid of plot, suggesting reams about its characters while rarely telling you anything about them. Reading it is like reading everything he wrote - like moving to a place you’ve never lived in before, where you don’t know the neighbours or how things work. But thanks to his artistry, you want to know them.’ [(See full-text version in RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index, or attached.)

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Eamon Maher interviews McGahern

Eamon Maher, ‘Catholicism and National Identity in the Works of John McGahern’, in Studies: an Irish Quarterly Review (Spring 2011), pp. 72-83. available at JSTOR - online.

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